Travelling around Guatemala is pretty easy, but involves a makeshift networked alchemy in which a variety of tiny hotpotch agencies all offering the same tours and dealing only in cash and handwritten tickets (always worth negotiating the price!) somehow manage to despatch trucks, buses and vans to the right hostels and hotels where drivers shout your name from scribbled down scraps of paper and notebooks to make sure you get on the right one.
For our trip from Antigua to the world famous market of Chichicastenango and on to lake Atitlán this system almost comes unravelled when our van driver yells “Rebekah” outside our hotel, and no-one is to be found. Eventually it’s decided this must either be the agency’s joke on us for haggling too hard on the price, or just the Guatemalan translation of Barbs!
As the bus weaves through some back roads and up into the deep green hills, there are little groups of small children playing on the roadsides, and tiny shops selling everything from clay pots to chickens and the ubiqitous long strings of bags of snacks, which the Guatemalans appear to be as fond of as their national fried chicken brand, Pollo Campero. The only things driving faster than us are the “chicken buses”, ornate and brightly coloured old school buses, packed to the rafters with people and packages, fearlessly swinging around the hairpin bends.
The bright colours of the chicken buses are just a tiny portent of the incredible technicolour mayhem and magic of Chichi market, which happens here every Sunday and Thursday. Our bus driver promises to look after our rucksacks as we plunge into the crowds of locals, all of whom seem to be selling something. Children constantly tug at our arms offering us Guatemalan worry doll fridge magnets, every tiny glance towards the myriad of artisanal woven and carved wares, from clothing to bags to hammocks and day of the dead ornaments, is met with pleas to take a closer look and the promise of “buen precios” (excellent prices)!
The stalls are a riot of gorgeous technicolour, textures and patterns, with so many competing for attention so tightly packed into this warren of small passages it’s hard to see how anyone could make a living. You do have to look more carefully to see the difference between the incredibly intricate traditionally woven clothes and hand carved dance masks, and the mass produced Guatemalan souvenir items on every stall. In the plaza, a thick cloud of smoke and heady incense from a ceremonial fire inhabits the flower laden steps of the main church of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, where traditional Mayan practices intermingle completely with Catholicism, the locals believe it is inhabited with all the spirits of their loved ones, the steps are and the stone altars are thick with the wax of used up candles. It was here that an early 18th century priest started reading and preaching references to the Mayan holy book and history, the Popol Vuh, encouraging families to move their shrines to the town. To this day the souls of the dead and Catholic saints are honoured here daily with offerings of flowers, alcohol, candles and prayers.
Over in the Centro Commercial, another riot of colour greets our eyes from the balcony above the vegetable market, with sumptuously shiny piles of deep red tomatoes and chillis, glorious white and green onions, peppers, cabbages, herbs and all sorts of fruit and veg we can’t even begin to recognise. The tomato sellers seem particularly busy on the day we’re there with women crowding around their stalls, jostling for attention and piling huge amounts into plastic bags.
It seems everything about Chichi is awash with colour, except for the Mayan shamans who are clad in black clothes as they make their way down from the market and up the hill to the cemetery and shrine of Pascual Abaj on a hill just outside the town. Even the family tombs here are colourful affairs for those who can afford to build them – they are brightly painted in pink, purple, blue, green and yellow, with family names roughly scrawled on them, whilst the poor are more simply marked with crude wooden or adobe crosses. Shamans are at work, stoking ever burning fires and reciting prayers and incantations.
Back at the place the buses stop, we’ve retrieved our bags from the first van and a bus driver pulls out a crumpled bit of paper and shouts “Rebekah”! Without hesitation Barbs jumps up, cos that’s us, for today at least, and we’re off again! Rebekah of course, in the bible, is the grandmother of Joseph, and if you ever need a technicolour dream outfit, Chichi would definitely be the place to find one!